Saturday, June 28, 2008

Conservapedia on The Hour...WTF?

From what I can tell "Conservapedia" is Wikipedia with even lower standards. But they will give you both sides to every issue. Evolution AND Creationism. The Pros AND Cons of choosing a gay lifestyle. Round AND Flat Earth theories (the jury's still out, you know). And these poor kids. Are they taught phrenology as well? Or alchemy? If the internet existed forty years ago the creators of this site would be exploring both sides to the "Civil Rights" debate.

Watch it and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beautiful Fresh Air Tribute to George Carlin


Beautiful Fresh Air Tribute

Iconoclastic Comic George Carlin Dies at 71

Comedian George Carlin, who died Sunday of heart failure at 71, was known for an act featuring "seven dirty words" that became the focus of a Supreme Court case. But he wasn't always a controversial figure.

His early act was marked by clever wordplay and spoofs of popular culture. He showed up on Ed Sullivan or The Tonight Show in his suit and tie throughout the 1960s. America loved the clean-cut New Yorker.

"I went through about eight or nine years of what essentially were the extended 1950s, sort of a button-down period. But that was when the country was changing," he said.

And Carlin changed with it. Carlin told NPR in 2004 that he felt alienated from his fan base of fortysomethings. Their kids were defining the era. He changed his look, grew out his hair and the beard that would become his trademark, and he steered his sharp, observational humor toward subjects that other comics of his generation and stature didn't dare touch: Vietnam, the counterculture, drugs and, of course, obscenity.

Seven Words

"There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can't say on television," Carlin would say in a routine in the '70s. "What a ratio that is: 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad."

And he famously proceeded to say them.

Police in Milwaukee arrested him for disturbing the peace after a performance in 1972. He was arrested several more times after that, but he refused to drop the bit from his act.

"It had a wonderfully rhythmic — the reading of those seven words, the way they were placed together — had a magnificent kind of a jazz feeling," Carlin said about the routine on WHYY's Fresh Air. "And so I knew I had done something that was making an important point about the hypocrisy of all of this."

In 1978, the "seven dirty words" riff was the focal point of a Supreme Court ruling: The New York radio station WBAI had played a recording of it — without bleeps — and caught the ire of the Federal Communications Commission. A 5-4 decision reaffirmed the government's right to regulate speech that the FCC deems offensive.

Crossing the Line

Meanwhile, Carlin's iconoclasm had become part of the mainstream. He won Grammy Awards; he was the host for the first episode of Saturday Night Live. And his envelope-pushing and pointed politics helped pave the way for comedians from Richard Pryor to Cheech and Chong to Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock to Bill Maher.

"I like to find out where the line might be drawn and then deliberately cross it," he said during an NPR interview in 2000. "There are an awful lot of taboos. ... I just enjoy squashing them and stepping on them and peeling them apart and trying to expose them to people. For some reason, it makes me happy."

In the decades since Carlin first cast his lot with the counterculture, he has come to be nearly universally regarded as one of America's greatest comedians. Just a few days ago, The Kennedy Center announced that Carlin would be awarded this year's Mark Twain Prize, the nation's highest honor for humorists.

Is Anarchism Practical?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Michel Foucault: friend or foe of the left

head-foucaultMichel Foucault: friend or foe of the left

Colin Wilson

(View Original)

The French historian, activist and intellectual Michel Foucault remains politically significant some 20 years after his death. Antonio Hardt and Michael Negri's book Empire, one of most influential works of the anti-capitalism movement, argues that "the work of Michel Foucault has prepared the terrain for…an investigation of the material functioning of imperial rule". On the pro-war left, Nick Cohen cites Foucault as a crucial source of the malaise affecting the rest of the left—the gutless relativism which, he argues, prevents us from attacking Islamists.1

Foucault's ideas have also gained considerable authority in history and the social sciences, particularly in areas such as cultural studies and sexuality. His work is enormously influential in the recently developed academic field of queer studies: one American academic has gone so far as to write a book entitled Saint Foucault, arguing that Foucault should be seen as the exemplary gay intellectual.2

Foucault is, then, both influential and perceived to be a radical of the left. How should we assess his ideas?

Foucault's life and ideas

Foucault was born into a prosperous family in 1926, and so went to university just after France's liberation from the Nazis. He achieved growing fame through a series of books from 1961, when his Madness and Civilisation was published, until his death in 1984. His books were mostly works of history, dealing with madness, psychiatry, medicine, prisons, criminology and sexuality. One of Foucault's biographers has written, "We might even say that the topic of 'abnormality', of the historical construction of the 'abnormal' individual, was the central theme around all of which Foucault's work was organised".3

Foucault spent his life at the pinnacle of French academia. In 1946 he gained entrance to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, a deeply elitist institution designed to produce teaching staff for the French state, and attended or taught at by major intellectual figures including Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan.

After graduating, Foucault spent much of the 1950s as a French cultural attaché abroad, before returning to France in 1960 to become an academic. From 1970 until his death he was a professor at the Collège de France, another highly prestigious institution. Lectures he gave there are now published in book form, and often form a more accessible introduction to his ideas than some of his books. As well as his books and lectures he wrote articles, gave interviews and so forth. Altogether a large volume of writing is available. Foucault was gay, which for much of his life was far less acceptable than it is today. At times he experienced great mental distress and sought help from psychiatry. He died of Aids at a time when the disease killed many gay men in the developed world.

Foucault writes history, often of things that might seem not to have a history. For example, a common idea about sexuality is that it is essentially a biological drive, that once superficial cultural attitudes have been disregarded sex is the same in all places and periods. A history of sex would be as banal as a history of breathing: one can only write a history of attitudes to sex. Yet Foucault demonstrates that concepts we might assume to be biologically rooted, such as homosexuality and heterosexuality, are no older than the second half of the 19th century. Sexuality is not outside history, rather it is, in Foucault's famous phrase, "socially constructed"—varying from one period and society to another. In the past anyone might be tempted to commit the "sinful" act of sodomy. Now condemnation has moved from certain acts to a certain kind of person:

As defined by the ancient canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The 19th century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood… Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality… It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature… The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.4

In a similar way, Foucault describes a history of madness. This begins with the Renaissance view that madness offered a fascinating opening into a different level of reality, followed by a period when mad people were confined, typically chained, which is in turn followed by apparently more enlightened attitudes. As ideas in each period changed so too did the social reality, the lived experience of madness.

Finally, in one of the most memorable passages in his writing, Foucault describes changes in the punishment of prisoners. At the start of his book Discipline and Punish he quotes from two texts. The first describes the execution in 1757 of Robert François Damiens, who had attempted to kill the king of France. On a public scaffold, lumps of Damien's flesh were torn off with red-hot pincers and a mixture of molten lead, resin, oil, wax and sulphur poured into the wounds. The executioners then roped a horse to each of his limbs so they could pull off an arm or leg each. But the horses were unused to doing this—after quarter of an hour of failure the horses were made to pull in different directions, which broke the arms but did not pull them off. Two more horses were then roped to Damiens' legs, still without success. Then the two executioners cut the flesh at the thighs almost to the bone, after which the horses managed to pull off Damien's legs. They then cut the flesh at the shoulders and his arms were pulled off. Finally the body—possibly still alive, sources disagree—was burnt.

Foucault compares this account with the rules for a model prison published in 1838:

The prisoners' day will begin at six in the morning in winter and five in summer. They will work for nine hours a day throughout the year. Two hours a day will be devoted to instruction. Work and the day will end at nine o'clock in winter and at eight in summer… Rising: at the first drum roll the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors. At the second drum roll, they must be dressed and make their beds. At the third, they must line up and proceed to the chapel for morning prayer. There is a five minute interval between each drum-roll.5

The difference between the chaotic public torture and the regulated private world of the prison could hardly be greater.

These accounts of the history of madness, sexuality and the treatment of criminals have several things in common. They illustrate that accepted ideas can change dramatically, implicitly calling into question present day "common sense". They stress that the past is different and strange—unlike more conventional histories which present the past as colourful but essentially reassuring, sharing basic values with our own society.

Accepted ideas can change rapidly: only 80 years divided the execution of Damiens and the prison timetable. The second half of the 17th century marked what Foucault calls "The Great Confinement", as mad people across Europe were interned in various institutions such as workhouses and hôpitaux généraux. He writes that "more than one out of every 100 inhabitants of the city of Paris found themselves confined there, within several months".

Such changes in ideas and practices, Foucault argues, do not constitute ever advancing "progress". He disagrees with the accepted view that we have moved from ignorance to understanding, from irrationality to reason, from superstition to science. He is deeply sceptical about the idea that our perceptions were once, as it were, shrouded in fog, while now we have a direct perception of clearly illuminated reality. (Ideas about light, enlightenment, seeing and "the gaze" recur throughout Foucault's work.)

Rather than seeing modern society as rational and our ideas as free of preconceptions, Foucault sees the creation of modern society as involving the development of a whole number of constraints and ideas meant to control our behaviour. You might think that abandoning public torture, or freeing mad people from their chains, are steps forward. Foucault thinks that even these changes are ambiguous.

For example, he documents that techniques for the care of the mad changed in the early 19th century—people were freed from their chains but only on condition that they now disciplined their own behaviour, accepting the standards of their keepers and internalising them. Modern prisons, he argues, discipline people far more closely than the medieval state did.

A key image here is the "panopticon", a proposed prison design made by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. A panopticon is a cell block of several storeys, each consisting of a ring of cells about a central courtyard. Each cell has a window at the back and the front. In the centre of the courtyard stands a tower. A guard in the tower can watch each of the prisoners through the cell's front window: light shines through the back window so the whole cell is illuminated. The tower is constructed in such a way that the prisoners cannot see the guard, so they must always behave as if the guard is watching them. Indeed, at any time there may not even be a guard.

Foucault is not claiming that many prisons were built to this design. Rather, he argues that the panopticon typifies a new conception of society and social control. In previous societies, details of a person's life were more likely to be recorded if they were a member of the elite, forming a monument to their power. Now detailed descriptions are written of such people as children, patients, madmen and prisoners to document their behaviour and so control them. More subtle categories of unacceptable behaviour than crime or madness are developed: disciplines such as psychiatry develop that identify the "abnormal", a grouping that includes people as various (to our eyes) as delinquents, maniacs and children who masturbate.6

There is much in these ideas that socialists may find attractive. Foucault claims that social practices and ideas can change in radical ways, sometimes quickly. He is interested in oppressed groups such as prisoners, mad people and homosexuals, and can be assumed to be on their side.

Particularly relevant today is Foucault's critique of liberal democracy. It is claimed, for example by enthusiasts for the "war on terror", that democracy is modern, rational and transparent. Foucault suggests that liberal democracy is actually characterised by all kinds of methods of controlling people's behaviour, particularly subtle methods that do not involve force. This is an account that fits very well with a world in which children are medicated for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, the state keeps track of citizens through biometric passports and the panopticon guard takes the form of city centre CCTV cameras.

More generally, it is certainly true that the development of capitalism meant an enormous increase in the power and reach of the state compared with feudalism—a standing army, a police force, a civil service and so on. This power is not generally exercised through force (though the ruling class can always fall back on this), but through consent, and that consent depends on "common sense" ideas about what is acceptable and what is abnormal.

However, if there is much in Foucault that can appeal to the left, there are also real problems with his ideas and their implications for political practice. But to make a full assessment of Foucault we first need to establish the context he operated in as an intellectual and a political activist.

The French left from liberation to the 1980s

The French left in this period was dominated by the Communist Party (the Parti Communiste Français or PCF) in a way completely unlike the left in many advanced capitalist countries.

The PCF emerged from the Second World War with great credibility, largely the result of its role in the resistance. The party claimed that 75,000 of its members had been shot in the conflict. It had a mass membership, estimated at 300,000, which included many workers. In the elections of November 1946 the PCF won more votes than any other party, and it spent a brief period as part of the government, and continued to get about a quarter of the vote in elections until the 1970s.7

The PCF described itself as Marxist, but in fact it was an uncritical supporter of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. In 1956, for example, the PCF supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary, where 20,000 people were killed in putting down a rising which threatened Soviet dominance of the country.8 When it came to French politics the PCF was not a revolutionary party, nor even at most times particularly left wing. It promoted a nationalist distortion of Marxism that identified the Russian Revolution of 1917 with the French Revolution of 1789, and claimed that the key concepts of Marxism were essentially French.9

By using Marxism in an attempt to justify the Soviet dictatorship, the PCF distorted Marx's theory on every topic, even the most abstract. In addition, the PCF loyally reflected changes of position on all issues as decreed by Moscow. For example, one leading PCF intellectual wrote a book called The Materialist Theory of Knowledge, which on publication was hailed as a "major addition to Marxist philosophy"—within three years the line had changed and he had disowned the book, refusing to allow it to be reprinted.10

The most destructive of the PCF's ideas was that Marxism was a science in a mechanical, 19th century sense. Scientific "laws" meant that social developments—transitions like those from feudalism to capitalism, or from capitalism to socialism—were inevitable, and driven by impersonal economic changes. Class struggle and human activity in general were not what drove history. This made the PCF's Marxism all but useless as a tool for examining history, and also had dire consequences for day to day political activity. Human liberation disappeared from their socialism and fighting oppression dropped out of the picture. So the PCF took no interest in fighting women's oppression, condemning Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex when it was first published. Similarly, the party voted to support the government in fighting Algerian independence, and expelled party members who supported the Algerian nationalists.11

That the PCF was internally undemocratic perhaps goes without saying. It is worth mentioning, however, the party's attitude to intellectuals. They were encouraged to join, but worked in their own party structures, separate from those of workers. In 1953, for example, the party organised two "national study days for communist intellectuals", which 600 people attended.12

All of these factors meant that the PCF's domination of the French left was continually contested and gradually declined. Thousands left the party in 1956 over the invasion of Hungary. The PCF opposed the enormous student and worker struggles of 1968, leading many of the new generation of militants to conclude that the party could not even be considered part of the left. Despite this, for any socialist seeking to influence the working class, the PCF, with a mass working class membership and control of the CGT union federation, could not be ignored. It should be added that until 1968, there was no successful attempt to build an alternative organisation of any size—including attempts led by as prestigious a figure as Jean-Paul Sartre.

Foucault in context

Foucault's own political commitments shifted through his life. He joined the PCF briefly in his youth and then left again. By the mid-1960s he had become a member of a government commission that recommended changes to French higher education, some of which helped provoke the student struggles of 1968—he was seen as a Tory technocrat.13

But from the mid-1960s he began to radicalise. He worked in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968 and was impressed by his students' commitment to political activity in spite of the risk of arrest. He even helped one left group by hiding their duplicator in his garden. He later commented, "What on earth is it that can set off in an individual the desire, the capacity and the possibility of an absolute sacrifice without our being able to recognise or suspect the slightest ambition or desire for power and profit? This was what I saw in Tunisia".14

Foucault returned to France in the autumn of 1968, and was further radicalised by the student struggles of the time. In 1971 he was one of the founders of the Group for Information on Prisons, a prisoners' rights group. He was involved in running the office, answered the phone, went on protests and on one occasion was arrested during a fight with police. But, as the tide of struggle ebbed, Foucault too ceased to be politically active.

Throughout his political development, Foucault consistently rejected the dominant ideology of the West, which claimed that science and rationality meant things were constantly improving, and which denied that there were any fundamental conflicts in society. He was also consistent in his opposition to the political practice and theory of the PCF and the Soviet Union. Since he identified these with socialism and Marxism, he believed that he was also refuting Marxism. For example, in one lecture he makes the general assertion that when Marxists claim their ideas are scientific they are in fact making a dubious claim for political power—and then seeks to justify that assertion by referring to the Soviet Union's use of psychiatry to silence opponents of the regime.15

If Foucault had not had the opportunity to discover non-Stalinist varieties of Marxism this might be understandable. But, while the PCF dominated French Marxism in this period, alternatives existed: Trotskyist organisations grew after 1968, for example, and Sartre consistently attempted to build a Marxist current outside the PCF. Foucault never engaged with such ideas. Nor did he seriously engage with the writings of Marx himself, dismissing them in an offhand and deliberately provocative way: "Marxism exists in 19th century thought like a fish in water: that is, unable to breathe anywhere else".16

Such an approach perhaps explains Foucault's popularity on the left today. His ideas are radical in that they question our own society's common sense and suggest that very different ways of living are possible, but he dismisses Marxism out of hand as a philosophy of human liberation since he sees it as implicated in the mass murders of Stalinism and the bureaucratic manoeuvring of the PCF. His perspective makes sense for those who reject capitalism, but identify Marxism with the failed regimes of the Soviet Empire.

Writers in International Socialism have repeatedly made the case that Stalinism constituted a betrayal of the genuine revolutionary tradition, the emancipatory character of which was most clearly demonstrated in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. I do not propose to repeat those arguments here. Rather I want to examine the ideas that Foucault puts forward as an alternative. To what extent do they explain the past, or act as a reliable guide to action?

While Foucault argues against the ideas of both the capitalist West and "Communist" East, he also deliberately rejects any attempt to develop a coherent alternative account of the world. He makes little reference, for example, to those aspects of society—class, workplace struggles, economics, the state, parliamentary politics—with which the PCF concerned itself. In general, he claimed:

From the 16th century on it has always been considered that the development of the forms and contents of knowledge was one of the greatest guarantees of the liberation of humanity… It is a fact, however…that the formation of the great systems of knowledge has also had effects and functions of subjection and rule.17

According to this view, any attempt to give an overall account of human society will lead to oppression, not liberation. Such a position perhaps reflects disgust at the Cold War—as Foucault remarked on his own attitude at the end of the Second World War, "What on earth could politics represent when it was a matter of choosing between the America of Truman or the USSR of Stalin?" Foucault's position also reflects the influence of the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that history is an unending sequence of struggles for power between human beings, and that human ideas, including scientific rationality, reflect these struggles, rather than achieving a disinterested perception of reality.18

Foucault's writing is, therefore, deliberately fragmented, a series of studies, each of narrow scope, which critique by implication the crimes of Stalinism but do not seek to form an alternative picture of society. This is the Foucault who rejects calls that he formulate demands for particular reforms: "I absolutely will not play the part of one who prescribes solutions"; who regards each of his books as an experiment that changes his opinions as he writes it, so that no one should expect his views to be consistent; who states, "I don't construct a general method of definitive value for myself or others." By this account, Foucault's ideas have no political utility, because it was never meant that they should have.19

In this context, it is worth considering how Foucault understood the value of his ideas in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was most politically active. Foucault was aware that his writings had a political resonance. While he never intended Madness and Civilisation, for example, to be a book with a campaigning agenda when it was first published in 1961, by the end of the decade it had found an audience among mental health activists. Foucault published Discipline and Punish, his history of the creation of the modern prison, in 1975, shortly after his campaigning work with the Group for Information on Prisons.

Yet even in this period Foucault rejected links between his intellectual work as a historian and his political activism. In conversation with a militant worker from Renault, he stated:

The workers have no need of intellectuals to know what it is they do. They know this perfectly well themselves. An intellectual, for me, is a guy hooked into the system of information rather than into the system of production. He is able to make himself heard. He can write in papers, give his point of view.20

This idealises workers, while reducing the role of intellectuals to a public prominence that means they can get articles published in newspapers. There is no conception that a historian can increase workers' confidence by giving a wider context to their everyday lives and struggles, or by showing that bourgeois ideas have a historical beginning and so can come to an end.

Yet if Foucault at times sought to deny that his work had political applications, he is also associated with a quite well defined set of politics, which give an account of society in terms of power. By "power" he meant any form of domination in society, but in particular he was interested in forms of domination other than those that rely on economic power or the power of the state. Indeed, he remarked that his own work, charting as it did the development of non-economic forms of "discipline" in fields such as madness and medicine, was nothing other than a history of power. For many in the 1980s, as we shall see later, this was understood to mean that Foucault's central concern was oppression.21

Foucault's concept of power is, however, much more ambiguous. On the one hand, it seems clear from his historical studies that doctors, courts and psychiatrists have power over patients, criminals and mad people. Foucault analyses the ideas of the people with power and undermines their grand claims to represent the progress of reason. He acknowledges disparities of power and seeks to subvert them. Indeed, at times he seems to object to any manifestation of power. In 1972 he debated with the Maoist Pierre Victor about the establishment of a "people's court". Foucault opposed any such idea: he argued that the judicial apparatus is a crucial part of the power of the state, so that the revolution must eliminate it entirely and resist the reintroduction of anything resembling it. He did not accept that, in a revolutionary context, the social meaning of a court could change. He claimed, rather, that the physical arrangement of the court itself—a supposedly impartial judge behind a table, litigants on either side—inevitably reflected the ideals of bourgeois justice. Such a determined rejection of any state apparatus suggests an anarchist perspective, though Foucault never used the word to describe his politics.22

Yet, while he portrays power as inevitably damaging, he also writes:

By domination I do not mean the brute fact of the domination of the one over the many, or of one group over another, but the multiple forms of domination that can be exercised in society…unless we are looking at it from a great height and a very great distance, power is not something that is divided between those who have it and hold it exclusively, and those who do not have it and are subject to it… It is never localised here or there, it is never in the hands of some.23

Power here is something that, to some extent, we all have. Towards the end of his life Foucault stressed that power is not necessarily repressive, but can rather be creative. He cited the way in which "the machinery of power" defined and so created a whole range of sexual perversions in the 19th century. And he went further:

Pleasure and power do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap and reinforce one another. They are linked together by complex mechanisms and devices of excitation and incitement.24

This striking change in Foucault's conception of power, from subversion to celebration, is connected, perhaps, with his assertion that the whole of human subjectivity is socially constructed. He begins The History of Sexuality, for example, by rejecting at length the idea that Victorian society repressed sexuality. After all, if there is no such thing as an essential, natural sexuality, one cannot speak of a society repressing it. Likewise, if there is no fixed human nature as a yardstick by which to judge, how can we tell which uses of power are repressive and which not? Certainly, it is hard to see, if we reject any idea of speaking about sex in terms of repression, how we can continue to assert that LGBT people are oppressed—an odd position for the patron saint of queer studies. In any case, since everyone is situated within the network of power, a general challenge to existing society is hard to conceive. All that is possible is a series of particular struggles:

Points of resistance are present everywhere in the power network. Hence there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case.25

This plurality of resistances implies plural revolutions:

I would say that the state consists in the codification of a whole number of power relations…and that revolution is a different type of codification of the same relations. This implies that there are many different kinds of revolution, roughly speaking, as many kinds as there are possible subversive recodifications of power relations, and further that one can perfectly well conceive of revolutions which leave untouched the power relations which form the basis for the functioning of the state.26

Yet Foucault gives no examples of such revolutionary processes, or explanations of how they occur. Rather than increasing our understanding of the world, he does little more than dilute the term "revolution" until it can refer to any kind of social change—or even change in the life of an individual. This political weakness is well described by the British gay academic Jeffrey Weeks, who is in general sympathetic towards Foucault:

It is surely evident that some forms of power act as greater "restraints" and limits, or have greater productive possibilities, than others. The state, for example, does have a monopoly of legal violence. The media is monopolistic. Capitalists do have more power than workers. Of course Foucault recognises this, while he rightly refuses to say that one form of oppression is better or worse, more or less severe, than any other. But some powers are more resistant to struggle than others and what is left vague in Foucault's work is any notion of the political strategies, in the conventional sense, needed to transform those powers.27

If Foucault's ideas do little to provide political guidance for the future, there are also real problems in his account of the past. It is striking that, while he devoted his intellectual life to documenting in enormous detail how ideas change, he spends almost no time examining why they do so. How do the dominant ideas in society come to dominate? Why do they change at particular points? Why are many mad people locked up in the mid-17th century, and not at some other period? Why does the idea that certain people are homosexual gain a hearing in the late 19th century and not before?

Marxists have often sought to explain such changes in ideas by demonstrating that they relate to wider changes in society, such as the development of capitalism, of the bourgeoisie and the working class, or of the state or the family. The Stalinist politics of the PCF involved a crude caricature of this method, which claimed that all social change could be more or less simply reduced to economic questions. Foucault rightly rejects this as too crude to explain historical events in all their complexity. Yet he offers little by way of an alternative. Nor is this simply an academic problem. Anyone who wants to challenge ideas which are prevalent in society must be interested in what has caused ideas to change in the past.

We are left therefore with detailed, static accounts of each system of thought. Sartre commented that Foucault describes the "conditions of possibility" of certain types of thought in each period. However:

Foucault does not tell us the thing that would be the most interesting, that is, how each thought is constructed on the basis of these conditions, or how mankind passes from one thought to another. To do so he would have to bring in praxis, and therefore history, which is precisely what he refuses to do. Of course his perspective remains historical. He distinguishes between periods, a before and an after. But he replaces cinema with the magic lantern, motion with a succession of motionless moments.28

In the absence of any worked out account of why ideas change, as Jeffrey Weeks points out, crude determinism tends to creep in through the back door. At the end of Foucault's analysis of changing ideas about sex in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, he suggests that such changes were originally the result of "the need to form a 'labour force'...and to ensure its reproduction". This is the beginning of an explanation, yet he does nothing to analyse how these features of capitalist society are linked to the changes in ideas about sexuality which he documents. In the absence of such an analysis, his reference to the reproduction of the labour force is no less crude as an explanation than those of the Stalinists he so despised.29

These weaknesses in Foucault's account of history and analysis of the present lead to real difficulties in the application of his ideas to politics. The results can be simply confused, or can lend support to the right.

Foucault visited Iran twice in 1978, witnessing the growth of a movement that would lead to the fall of the Shah and eventually to the proclamation of the Islamic Republic. He wrote eight articles about these developments in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. The history of the Iranian Revolution is now little known. It began with widespread revolt against the Shah, a Western backed dictator with a huge secret police. There was significant working class involvement in the movement—a crucial stage in the fall of the Shah's regime was an oil workers' strike. Foucault's reports evoke the exhilaration of this mass involvement, of the poor in a developing country opposing imperialism:

It is an uprising of men with their bare hands who want to lift the tremendous weight pressing each of us down, pressing them down in particular, these oil workers and peasants on the frontiers of empires.30

The Iranian movement echoed that in Tunisia that had inspired Foucault in the 1960s. Certainly it was a world away from the sterile formulas of the PCF, although this led Foucault to claim that the events were unconnected with class, and were instead the result of a general "collective will" to depose the Shah. His analysis of the appeal of religion in that situation was perceptive. Quoting Marx, he remarked that its appeal was that of "the spirit of a world without a spirit". Yet he singularly failed to distinguish between the different political forces, such as the workers and the Islamists. On the subject of Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, history showed the inadequacy of Foucault's assessment:

Khomeini is not a politician. There will be no Khomeini party, there will be no Khomeini government. Khomeini is the point of fixation for a collective will. 31

Perhaps the most enduring political use to which Foucault's ideas have been put is in support of identity politics. It was as the theoretician behind these movements that Foucault first became politically significant in the early 1980s. This was a time when the radical movements of the 1960s and early 1970s had been defeated throughout the world: Margaret Thatcher was elected in Britain in 1979, followed by Ronald Reagan in the US in 1980. Many people who had been drawn to revolutionary ideas now looked to alternative strategies. Some turned to futile attempts to change the system from within, working through the Labour Party in Britain or the Democrats in the US. Others despaired of the possibility of building a united movement, and prioritised more or less separate struggles by oppressed groups such as women, black people or lesbians and gay men.

Foucault's ideas worked well as a justification for such a shift. His belief in a plurality of struggles, a plurality of revolutions or a revolution that need not involve the destruction of the state—all of this lent a gloss of sophistication to the new pessimism. His rejection of Marx and his lack of interest in class were all too appropriate to a decade characterised by workers' defeats, in which leading intellectuals of the left proclaimed the working class dead or incapable of fighting.

The present situation is quite different. The years since the 1999 Seattle protests and 9/11 have seen millions radicalised as part of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Yet in these movements Marxism is a minority voice, while the dominant politics in many ways builds on the movements of the 1980s and 1990s. A radical, non-Marxist viewpoint, like that now attributed to Foucault, fits the mood of the time.

Yet, if Foucault now speaks to people moving to the left, he has spoken in the recent past to people moving to the right. The fact that he can do both shows the ambiguity and lack of clarity in his ideas. And finally, this is what matters, because what people find appealing, even inspiring, in Foucault is not so much his detailed analysis of texts concerning particular topics, as his general approach. That approach, while giving rise to some fascinating and inspiring insights, remains fundamentally flawed.


1: Hardt and Negri, 2001, p22; Cohen, 2007, pp107-109.

2: Halperin, 1997. The title of Halperin's book is a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's Saint Genet.

3: Eribon, 2001, p36.

4: Foucault, 1971, p38; Foucault, 1981, p43.

5: Foucault, 1979, pp3-6.

6: Foucault, 1979, pp191-193; Foucault, 2003, p49.

7: Drake, 2002, pp12, 93, 11.

8: Drake, 2002, p93.

9: Kelly, 1982, pp53-54.

10: Kelly, 1982, p79.

11: Drake, 2002, p146; Christofferson, 2004, p40.

12: Kelly, 1982, p81.

13: Eribon, 1992, pp36, 56, 189.

14: Foucault, 1991, p136.

15: Foucault, 2003, p.12.

16: Foucault, 1974, p262.

17: Foucault, 1991, p165.

18: Foucault, 1991, p47; Foucault, 1984a, p85. See also Callinicos, 1989, pp64-65.

19: Foucault, 1991, pp157, 27-29.

20: Eribon, 2001, p253.

21: Foucault, 1991, p145.

22: Eribon, 2001, pp245-247.

23: Foucault, 2004, pp27-29.

24: Foucault, 2004, p30; Foucault 1981, pp44, 48.

25: Foucault, 1981, pp95-96.

26: Foucault, 1984b, p64.

27: Weeks, 2000, p119.

28: Eribon, 1992, p163.

29: Weeks, 2000, p115; Foucault, 1981, p114.

30: Eribon, 1992, p287.

31: Foucault, 1988, p215; Eribon, 1992, p287.


Callinicos, Alex, 1989, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (Polity).

Christofferson, Michael Scott, 2004, French Intellectuals Against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s (Berghahn).

Cohen, Nick , 2007, What's Left?: How the Liberals Lost Their Way (Fourth Estate).

Drake, David, 2002, Intellectuals and Politics in Post-War France (Palgrave Macmillan).

Eribon, Didier, 1992, Michel Foucault (Faber and Faber).

Eribon, Didier, 2001, "Michel Foucault's Histories of Sexuality", GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, volume 7, number 1.

Foucault, Michel, 1971, Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (Tavistock).

Foucault, Michel, 1974, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Tavistock).

Foucault, Michel, 1979, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Penguin).

Foucault, Michel, 1981, The History of Sexuality Volume One: An Introduction (Penguin).

Foucault, Michel, 1984a, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History", in Paul Rabinow (ed), The Foucault Reader (Penguin).

Foucault, Michel, 1984b, "Truth and Power", in Paul Rabinow (ed), The Foucault Reader (Penguin).

Foucault, Michel, 1988, "Iran: The Spirit of a World Without Spirit", in Lawrence D Kritzman (ed), Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture—Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984 (Routledge).

Foucault, Michel, 1991, Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori (Semiotext).

Foucault, Michel, 2003, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975 (Verso).

Foucault, Michel, 2004, "Society Must be Defended": Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976 (Verso).

Halperin, David M, 1997, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (Oxford University).

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri, 2001, Empire (Harvard University), available from

Kelly, Michael, 1982, Modern French Marxism (Wiley).

Weeks, Jeffrey, 2000, "Foucault for Historians", in Making Sexual History (Polity).

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 71, Irreverent Standup Comedian, Is Dead

GeorgeCarlin-L3I wonder if he heard his two-minute warning. R.I.P, George.

George Carlin, the Grammy-Award winning standup comedian and actor who was hailed for his irreverent social commentary, poignant observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and groundbreaking routines like “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” died in Santa Monica, Calif., on Sunday, according to his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He was 71.

The cause of death was heart failure. Mr. Carlin, who had a history of heart problems, went into the hospital on Sunday afternoon after complaining of heart trouble. The comedian had worked last weekend at The Orleans in Las Vegas.

Recently, Mr. Carlin was named the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He was to receive the award at the Kennedy Center in November. “In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer, and actor, George Carlin has not only made us laugh, but he makes us think,” said Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Kennedy Center chairman. “His influence on the next generation of comics has been far-reaching.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Jack Burns, who performed with Mr. Carlin in the 1960’s as one half of a comedy duo, said “He was a genius and I will miss him dearly.”

Mr. Carlin began his standup comedy act in the late 1950s and made his first television solo guest appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1965. At that time, he was primarily known for his clever wordplay and reminiscences of his Irish working-class upbringing in New York.

But from the outset there were indications of an anti-establishment edge to his comedy. Initially, it surfaced in the witty patter of a host of offbeat characters like the wacky sportscaster Biff Barf and the hippy-dippy weatherman Al Sleet. “The weather was dominated by a large Canadian low, which is not to be confused with a Mexican high. Tonight’s forecast . . . dark, continued mostly dark tonight turning to widely scattered light in the morning.”

Mr. Carlin released his first comedy album, “Take-Offs and Put-Ons,” to rave reviews in 1967. He also dabbled in acting, winning a recurring part as Marlo Thomas’ theatrical agent in the sitcom “That Girl” (1966-67) and a supporting role in the movie “With Six You Get Egg-Roll,” released in 1968.

By the end of the decade, he was one of America’s best known comedians. He made more than 80 major television appearances during that time, including the Ed Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; he was also regularly featured at major nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas.

That early success and celebrity, however, was as dinky and hollow as a gratuitous pratfall to Mr. Carlin. “I was entertaining the fathers and the mothers of the people I sympathized with, and in some cases associated with, and whose point of view I shared,” he recalled later, as quoted in the book “Going Too Far” by Tony Hendra, which was published in 1987. “I was a traitor, in so many words. I was living a lie.”

In 1970, Mr. Carlin discarded his suit, tie, and clean-cut image as well as the relatively conventional material that had catapulted him to the top. Mr. Carlin reinvented himself, emerging with a beard, long hair, jeans and a routine that, according to one critic, was steeped in “drugs and bawdy language.” There was an immediate backlash. The Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas terminated his three-year contract, and, months later, he was advised to leave town when an angry mob threatened him at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. Afterward, he temporarily abandoned the nightclub circuit and began appearing at coffee houses, folk clubs and colleges where he found a younger, hipper audience that was more attuned to both his new image and his material.

By 1972, when he released his second album, “FM & AM,” his star was again on the rise. The album, which won a Grammy Award as best comedy recording, combined older material on the “AM” side with bolder, more acerbic routines on the “FM” side. Among the more controversial cuts was a routine euphemistically entitled “Shoot,” in which Mr. Carlin explored the etymology and common usage of the popular idiom for excrement. The bit was part of the comic’s longer routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which appeared on his third album “Class Clown,” also released in 1972.

“There are some words you can say part of the time. Most of the time ‘ass’ is all right on television,” Mr. Carlin noted in his introduction to the then controversial monologue. “You can say, well, ‘You’ve made a perfect ass of yourself tonight.’ You can use ass in a religious sense, if you happen to be the redeemer riding into town on one — perfectly all right.”

The material seems innocuous by today’s standards, but it caused an uproar when broadcast on the New York radio station WBAI in the early ‘70s. The station was censured and fined by the FCC. And in 1978, their ruling was supported by the Supreme Court, which Time magazine reported, “upheld an FCC ban on ‘offensive material’ during hours when children are in the audience.” Mr. Carlin refused to drop the bit and was arrested several times after reciting it on stage.

By the mid-’70s, like his comic predecessor Lenny Bruce and the fast-rising Richard Pryor, Mr. Carlin had emerged as a cultural renegade. In addition to his irreverent jests about religion and politics, he openly talked about the use of drugs, including acid and peyote, and said that he kicked cocaine not for moral or legal reasons but after he found “far more pain in the deal than pleasure.” But the edgier, more biting comedy he developed during this period, along with his candid admission of drug use, cemented his reputation as the “comic voice of the counterculture.”

Mr. Carlin released a half dozen comedy albums during the ‘70s, including the million-record sellers “Class Clown,” “Occupation: Foole” (1973) and “An Evening With Wally Lando” (1975). He was chosen to host the first episode of the late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live” in 1975. And two years later, he found the perfect platform for his brand of acerbic, cerebral, sometimes off-color standup humor in the fledgling, less restricted world of cable television. By 1977, when his first HBO comedy special, “George Carlin at USC” was aired, he was recognized as one of the era’s most influential comedians. He also become a best-selling author of books that expanded on his comedy routines, including “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?,” which was published by Hyperion in 2004.

He was “a hugely influential force in stand-up comedy,” the actor Ben Stiller told The Associated Press. “He had an amazing mind, and his humor was brave, and always challenging us to look at ourselves and question our belief systems, while being incredibly entertaining. He was one of the greats.”

Pursuing a Dream

Mr. Carlin was born in New York City in 1937. “I grew up in New York wanting to be like those funny men in the movies and on the radio,” he said. “My grandfather, mother and father were gifted verbally, and my mother passed that along to me. She always made sure I was conscious of language and words.”

He quit high school to join the Air Force in the mid-’50s and, while stationed in Shreveport, La., worked as a radio disc jockey. Discharged in 1957, he set out to pursue his boyhood dream of becoming an actor and comic. He moved to Boston where he met and teamed up with Jack Burns, a newscaster and comedian. The team worked on radio stations in Boston, Fort Worth, and Los Angeles, and performed in clubs throughout the country during the late ‘50s.

After attracting the attention of the comedian Mort Sahl, who dubbed them “a duo of hip wits,” they appeared as guests on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. Still, the Carlin-Burns team was only moderately successful, and, in 1960, Mr. Carlin struck out on his own.

During a career that spanned five decades, he emerged as one of the most durable, productive and versatile comedians of his era. He evolved from Jerry Seinfeld-like whimsy and a buttoned-down decorum in the ‘60s to counterculture icon in the ‘70s. By the ‘80s, he was known as a scathing social critic who could artfully wring laughs from a list of oxymorons that ranged from “jumbo shrimp” to “military intelligence.” And in the 1990s and into the 21st century the balding but still pony-tailed comic prowled the stage — eyes ablaze and bristling with intensity — as the circuit’s most splenetic curmudgeon.

During his live 1996 HBO special, “Back in Town,” he raged over the shallowness of the ‘90s “me first” culture — mocking the infatuation with camcorders, hyphenated names, sneakers with lights on them, and lambasting white guys over 10 years old who wear their baseball hats backwards. Baby boomers, “who went from ‘do your thing’ to ‘just say no’ ...from cocaine to Rogaine,” and pro life advocates (“How come when it’s us it’s an abortion, and when it’s a chicken it’s an omelet?”), were some of his prime targets. In the years following his 1977 cable debut, Mr. Carlin was nominated for a half dozen Grammy awards and received CableAces awards for best stand-up comedy special for “George Carlin: Doin’ It Again (1990) and “George Carlin: Jammin’ “ (1992). He also won his second Grammy for the album “Jammin” in 1994.

Personal Struggles

During the course of his career, Mr. Carlin overcame numerous personal trials. His early arrests for obscenity (all of which were dismissed) and struggle to overcome his self-described “heavy drug use” were the most publicized. But in the ‘80s he also weathered serious tax problems, a heart attack and two open heart surgeries.

In December 2004 he entered a rehabilitation center to address his addictions to Vicodin and red wine. Mr. Carlin had a well-chronicled cocaine problem in his 30s, and though he was able to taper his cocaine use on his own, he said, he continued to abuse alcohol and also became addicted to Vicodin. He entered rehab at the end of that year, then took two months off before continuing his comedy tours.

“Standup is the centerpiece of my life, my business, my art, my survival and my way of being,” Mr. Carlin once told an interviewer. “This is my art, to interpret the world.” But, while it always took center stage in his career, Mr. Carlin did not restrict himself to the comedy stage. He frequently indulged his childhood fantasy of becoming a movie star. Among his later credits were supporting parts in “Car Wash” (1976), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), “The Prince of Tides” (1991), and “Dogma” (1999).

His 1997 book, “Brain Droppings,” became an instant best seller. And among several continuing TV roles, he starred in the Fox sitcom “The George Carlin Show,” which aired for one season. “That was an experiment on my part to see if there might be a way I could fit into the corporate entertainment structure,” he said after the show was canceled in 1994. “And I don’t,” he added.

Despite the longevity of his career and his problematic personal life, Mr. Carlin remained one of the most original and productive comedians in show business. “It’s his lifelong affection for language and passion for truth that continue to fuel his performances,” a critic observed of the comedian when he was in his mid-60s. And Chris Albrecht, an HBO executive, said, “He is as prolific a comedian as I have witnessed.”

Mr. Carlin is survived by his wife, Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall; son-in-law, Bob McCall, brother, Patrick Carlin and sister-in-law, Marlene Carlin. His first wife, Brenda Hosbrook, died in 1997.

Although some criticized parts of his later work as too contentious, Mr. Carlin defended the material, insisting that his comedy had always been driven by an intolerance for the shortcomings of humanity and society. “Scratch any cynic,” he said, “and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”

Still, when pushed to explain the pessimism and overt spleen that had crept into his act, he quickly reaffirmed the zeal that inspired his lists of complaints and grievances. “I don’t have pet peeves,” he said, correcting the interviewer. And with a mischievous glint in his eyes, he added, “I have major, psychotic hatreds.”

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Atheism and Its Critics

New Atheism

(View Original)

Atheists have been called the most hated minority in America. And yet recent atheist manifestos by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have all made the best-seller list. So have these atheists changed our thinking about religion? We'll talk about the New Atheism with Richard Dawkins and two of his critics on To the Best of Our Knowledge.

Atheism and Its Critics

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why Iraq won't be South Korea

Why Iraq won't be South Korea
By Pepe Escobar
(View Original)

The United States invasion of Iraq then takes on an even broader meaning. Not only does it constitute an attempt to control the global oil spigot and hence the global economy though domination over the Middle East. It also constitutes a powerful US military bridgehead on the Eurasian land mass which ... yields it a powerful geostrategic position in Eurasia with at least the potentiality to disrupt any consolidation of an Eurasian power that could indeed be the next step in that endless accumulation of political power that must always accompany the equally endless accumulation of capital.
- David Harvey, The New Imperialism, 2003

WASHINGTON - Everyone remembers the George W Bush "Mission Accomplished" victory speech on board of an aircraft carrier off the San Diego coast in the spring of 2003. Over five years - and a trillion dollars - later, Bush's last stand is to force a neo-colonial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) under Iraqi throats by the end of July, acquire the right to go on "war on terror" mode in Iraq forever, declare victory and thus win - finally - his war, now opposed by a striking majority of Americans.

Call it "occupation forever". But there's one glitch: Iraqis are not falling for it.

I need your oil so bad
Flash back to September 2001. The neo-conservatives wanted their "new Pearl Harbor" really bad - something they had virtually implored for via the Project for a New American Century. They got it on September 11, 2001. Then the short anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan turned out to be a sort of test drive for Iraq. Echoing astute past observations by Hannah Arendt, US nationalism and imperialism was coupled with racism (towards Arabs and Islam).

And the invasion of Iraq was finally conceptualized as a "demonstration project" - the push to create in the Mesopotamian sands a US-style, wealthy consumer society, a demilitarized client state under benign US protection. Better yet, a 21st century version of the South Korean "tiger" miracle - engineered by US military-technological power.

But it all went way beyond Iraq as a new South Korea. David Harvey, the brilliant Oxford-educated American geographer who proposes, in his own words, long-term geopolitical analysis based on "historical-geographical materialism", wrote in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq offered "a vital strategic bridgehead ... on the Eurasian land mass that just happens to be the center of production of the oil that currently fuels (and will continue to fuel for at least the next 50 years) not only the global economy but also every large military machine that dares to oppose that of the United States."

An empire of military bases and control of oil fields. These two crucial "benchmarks", applied to Iraq, are what's left of that alliance between the neo-cons and the Christian Right which took over the US government with an imperial project of military rule over global oil resources. Now it's twilight time; and no wonder the Bush administration has come out with all guns blazing. Without a new, US Big Oil-friendly Iraqi oil law, and without a SOFA, US$3 trillion - according to Joseph Stiglitz's and Linda Bilmes' book - will have been spent for nothing.

However, on Thursday, the New York Times reported that Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total and BP were in the final stages of negotiations on contracts that will return them to Iraq, 36 years after losing their oil concession to nationalization by Saddam Hussein.

They are reportedly in negotiations with the Oil Ministry for no-bid contracts to service Iraq's largest fields. Should the deals go through, they would lay the foundation for the first commercial work for major Western companies in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. It is expected that Iraq's output could increase to about 3 million barrels a day from its current 2.5 million.

Initially, the Bush administration wanted no less than 58 permanent US bases in Iraq. There are already 30 in place. It doesn't matter that on April 8, US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker had said the US "will not establish permanent bases in Iraq and we anticipate that it will expressly foreswear them".

The Bush administration's ploy essentially amounts to turning over legal control of US bases to a client regime. Heavy pressure is the name of the game. To convince the Iraqis, the Bush administration is holding no less than $50 billion of Iraqi money in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Other "subtle" forms of pressure also apply. The Iraqis wanted to sell oil in euros as well as in dollars. The Bush administration issued its fatwa - and it's a "no".

This shady deal the Bush administration wants so badly is a SOFA only in theory. In fact, it's a smokescreen. Under US law, it would have to be submitted to the senate. The Bush administration wants to totally bypass the senate.

And the deal is not about Iraq either. It's essentially about Iran - as in the neo-con 2003 mantra "real men go to Tehran". That's the meaning of the Bush administration demand, according to Iraqi lawmakers, of "the right ... to strike, from within Iraqi territory, any country it considers a threat to its national security."

The Bush administration wants to totally control Iraqi airspace. The Bush administration wants to employ US firepower without approval from the "sovereign" Iraqi government. The Bush administration wants immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for all American troops and even dozens of thousands of contractors - most of them Blackwater-style mercenaries. The US Army simply cannot function properly without these privatized warriors.

Were a deal to be reached under the current terms - the deadline remains July 31 - nothing would be easier for the Bush administration than to accuse Iran of interfering in Iraq - as it is already doing non stop - and then attack Iran under the "legal" cover of this SOFA.

The Bush administration also would have a hard time getting the US Congress to explicitly approve an attack on Iran. So why not use the Iraqi Parliament instead? No wonder scores of Iraqi parliamentarians, Sunni and Shi'ite alike, fear the deal is basically a cover to use Iraq as a base to attack Iran. Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, went to Tehran and solemnly promised that Iraq would not be used as a US base for an attack on Iran.

Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Maliki that Iraqis have to "think of a solution to free" themselves from US power. Not surprisingly, Khamenei advised Maliki not to sign the deal. Maliki, for his part, reassured the Iranians in no uncertain terms Iraq is not an arena for a deadly US-Iran Armageddon.

Get me to the deal on time
The consensus now in Baghdad seems to be that no deal will be reached before the US presidential election in November. Anyway the Bush administration will not give up without a fierce fight. The State Department's top Iraq adviser, David Satterfield, insists the deal "can be achieved, and by the end of the July deadline".

How? Well, the Bush administration has invested in a little rewriting - they are now on a fourth draft. Some "concessions" have been made in terms of immunity of contractors to Iraqi law. But the deal still has no timetable for a definitive draw down of US troops. And Defense, Interior and National Security ministries, as well as weapons contracts, are still meant to be under US control for 10 years.

Under these circumstances how can you convince people like Iman al-Asadi, a Shi'ite member of the committee on legal affairs in Baghdad? According to her, "what happens to our dignity? What happens to our sovereignty? ... If the US controls the air, the ground and the sea, this means no sovereignty."

Democratic Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign has demanded that the deal be submitted to the US Congress - and that Iraqis should be told in no uncertain terms that the US does not want permanent bases in Iraq. Republican John McCain's campaign ... has had nothing to say.

In fact, it had. McCain - with a huge help from Bush - attacked Obama because Obama said he would meet with the "evil" Iranian leadership. That's exactly what Bush's man in Baghdad, Maliki, did only a few days ago.

The only man who can stop the deal dead in its tracks is Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. True, he fears that without critical US support the Shi'ite parties in government will be much more fragile. But Sistani also fears the street power of Muqtada al-Sadr - who called the Sadrists to demonstrate every Friday against the deal, until it is scrapped. It's fair to say the majority of Iraqis - the Kurds, Vice President Dick Cheney's "base", are the exception - want to know who they'll be dealing with, Obama or McCain, before they embark on the highly sensitive negotiation of the long-term role of the US in Iraq.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, talks like he's a State Department employee: he says the deal will be clinched. Grand Ayatollah Sistani forced Maliki to call for a parliament vote. And Muqtada wants a national referendum - that would be the Bush administration's bete noire.

For days this has been a top political story all over the Middle East - as well as in Western Europe. It has been broken by the London-based, Saudi-owned al-Hayat newspaper and by Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent. What about US public opinion? It's been kept literally in the dark. Corporate media coverage has been virtually invisible. Maybe this is what corporate newsrooms call "mission accomplished" - not to explain to the American public how Iraq cannot possibly become South Korea.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. He may be reached at

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

If the Left Debated the Campaign Issues

If the Left Debated the Campaign Issues

On foregin policy

and Michael Albert
(View Original)

An interview with Michael Albert by Lydia Sargent

SARGENT: In the last session you established that presidential elections are mostly a PR campaign and that, sincere or not, the campaign has little to do with truth or with fundamental changes in existing institutions and a lot to do with getting elected, with the help of elite funding and false promises to voters. Let's turn to a few specific issues, starting with foreign policy. How would the left or a left candidate go about exposing U.S. foreign policy?

ALBERT: I don't think what the candidates say about foreign policy means much at all. They seek to appeal to funders, media, and various constituencies. They say what their pollsters tell them to say. At times they say what they believe while at other times they say what they don't believe. They sell themselves in the same way Proctor and Gamble sells toothpaste—by saying whatever needs to be said to find a way to get support.

To find out about candidates, the way to go about it is not by looking at what they say, but by looking at the history of American foreign policy. Since the logic of it changes barely at all, there's no reason to suspect it's going to change now—unless, of course, large constituencies force it to change.

As to what their foreign policy is it's relatively simple: U.S. foreign policy is elites in the United States— the Pentagon, the White House, the corporations—pursuing policies designed to enhance their own power, their own options, and their own wealth. So the policies are designed to extract wealth from other places in the world, whether by actual coercive behavior or, more often, just the power of threats.

A case in point is that the United States isn't in Iraq to take Iraqi oil and benefit from it directly, it's rather more in Iraq to be in control of Iraqi and Mideast oil and to be able to use that power, that threat, that position of dominance over a critical resource to coerce outcomes around the world that it wants. It's always been our policy to behave in that way.

So when candidates say that the U.S. should promote democracy and human rights around the world, what do they mean?

I have no idea what's in their heads, but it's a little bit like saying Iran should promote democracy and human rights around the world. It makes no sense. It's like saying domestically the Mafia should promote human rights and democracy in major urban areas of the United States.

The United States doesn't care what polls show the Iraqi people want; the United States doesn't care what polls show the population of any country in the world wants. When Turkey was going to oppose the war in Iraq because the Turkish population was so against war that the Turkish elites were afraid not to, American media described Turkey as a backward country, not a country that was exhibiting democratic behavior— which it was. And the same went for countries throughout Europe. The countries that opposed the war in Iraq, that were critical of it in response to overwhelming sentiments of their populations, the United States treated as somehow backward, peculiar, misbehaving. The countries that ignored their populations and supported the U.S. role in Iraq, the United States was happy about, describing them as enlightened. That's what American foreign policy is all about. The gap between reality and rhetoric is so huge that you can say things that are incredible. So to talk about the United States imposing democracy is like talking about the Mafia imposing non-violence or peace.

What kind of a foreign policy would you present and how should America behave toward the rest of the world?

I think a good leftist—my saying it doesn't mean much—but a good leftist who might be running for office would say something like, "As president, here are some of the things I would do: close American military bases around the world; reorient the funds that would be saved and spend some in parts of the world that have suffered due to policies of the United States and other wealthy first world countries; spend some of it inside the United States—raising the consciousness and a sense of solidarity with others—and improving the life of people in the United States."

I would simply remove from the docket of American behavior occupying, invading, or otherwise using violence to coerce other nations in any way whatsoever. I would make clear that there are several ways to deal with "terrorism" in the world. One is to pursue it, to actually be terrorists. That's what the United States does as its primary policy. That is, the United States engages in coercive violence around the world to pursue its own interests regardless of its effect on populations.

The second thing that the U.S. does is provoke terrorism. We have a foreign policy that is so callous toward, so dismissive of, and so denigrating to, people around the world that people naturally react hostilely. And then we have created an environment in which the only thing that matters is power. If the only thing that matters is power, and you're a third world country, you can't exercise power via a gigantic military apparatus like the United States, you have to do it via terrorism. It's the only avenue open.

I should clarify that terrorism is a real issue. It is possible for there to be a terrorist apparatus that exacts gigantic horror.

Besides the U.S., you mean?

Yes. The U.S. is first in nuclear weapons, first in violence, first in coercion. But you could imagine a situation in which some apparatus got possession of nuclear weapons and used them. So how do you prevent that? Well, one way would be Bush's way, by having a gigantic coercive cop on the beat who, ahead of any threat, goes in and exterminates what it takes to be the likely threat. The problem with that approach, aside from being immoral, is the idea that the U.S. should do it. Everybody in the U.S. would laugh if we said that the Iranians or North Koreans should be the cops of the world. Well, for the rest of the world the idea that the U.S. should be the cops of the world is like that. It's ridiculous.

Imagine that six people decide they're going on a rampage and engage in some horrible violent activity against Las Vegas. And surveillance discovers they are from Phoenix, Arizona. So what should we do? We want to prosecute these people, we think they're in Phoenix—let's bomb Phoenix. Let's launch a massive air assault against the entire state, for that matter, because we believe these six terrorists are in Phoenix. What would the result be? Instead of 6 people, there would be 6,000 people hostile toward the rest of the country.

What should we do with the six people in Phoenix? We might try to catch them without killing everyone else in the city. What if Japan or India decided to bomb the U.S. and cut off food and medicine because there's a bunch of terrorists in Washington?

The idea of solving the problem of coercive violence by the exercise of even greater coercive violence has never and probably will never work. These policies are barbaric and they do not deal with terrorism. On the other hand, they aren't meant to deal with terrorism. They're meant to perpetuate and propel the will of America in the world as the chief sovereign that decides what can and can't be done.

So what's the alternative? The alternative would be international law. The alternative would be an environment in which international courts, international law, the UN, really meant something. The alternative would be an environment in which those who have power now—and it doesn't change overnight—would be restrained from and would restrict themselves from exercising it. That's what a left candidate would talk about.

Let's turn specifically to Iraq. In a candidates' debate, what would you say about our foreign policy there?

The United States should withdraw. But more than that, it should pay huge reparations. Why? Because we've destroyed the infrastructure of a country. We have harmed, perhaps irreparably, a society. We owe them reparations. We owe them support to get back to being a functioning polity, economy, and social system. So we should provide that, not just withdraw. But we should certainly withdraw. We are an occupying army.

Another area of concern in the debates is China. The talk there is about human rights violations and lack of democracy. How would a left candidate discuss China?

A left candidate might look and say not just what are the Chinese doing, but what are the Americans doing? For instance, American cigarette manufacturers are addicting the Chinese population to cigarettes. Why? In order to replace European and American populations' diminishing smoking. So we're exporting smoking to China. Let's compare that to cocaine from Colombia to the United States. Cocaine from Colombia to the United States kills about 3,000 Americans a year. Cigarette addiction will kill millions, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions of Chinese over decades. That's what American policy does. What is China doing that remotely compares—and remember we're only looking at one industry in the U.S.?

So what I would do first is look at our behavior with respect to China and the rest of the world. Then, if we clean it up, if we begin to behave in a remotely responsible fashion, we would have more justification in criticizing violations elsewhere.

Another country of great concern to the candidates is Cuba. Should we continue the sanctions, should we indict Castro, should we go in and get Castro's ally Chavez?

Again, it's American political culture vs. reality. So what we have in Cuba is a situation where, for decades, the United States has engaged in economic warfare, terrorism as well. The economic warfare is the embargo, the terrorism is the acts of terror committed with the support of, and even engaged in by, U.S. policy toward Cuba. Why? If the Cuban people want to do X and X is dangerous to the United States, it's not allowed. What is X in this case? X is to own their own resources. X is to administer their own society. X is to not have a distribution of wealth like that in the United States where a few percent of the population own the vast majority of the economic assets and the wealth accruing from them. The Cubans don't have that. The Cubans have a society where the tremendous centralization of wealth in the hands of the few was undone.

It's not my idea of an ideal society by a long shot, but that was a gigantic step forward. It's that step forward that makes Cuba anathema to the United States and which causes the U.S. to think that it makes sense to talk about what the future of Cuba should be. What if the Japanese started to talk about what the future of the U.S. should be? We can understand the idea that one nation doesn't have the right to dictate to another how it should function, except in the case of the United States.

And Chavez in Venezuela?

With respect to Chavez, it's even more ridiculous. For the U.S. to talk about Chavez as a dictator is a travesty. It's a travesty in the sense that they've had election after election in Venezuela which he handily wins. Then they have one recently, not about his being in office, but about a set of policies that he was backing, which lost. What was Chavez's response to that? "Okay, I lost." If he was a dictator he wouldn't lose; he wouldn't even have an election.

So why is the U.S. government upset about Venezuela? We're upset for the same reasons as in Cuba. It's because in Venezuela the government is looking around at society and saying, "You know what? We should change things. We should change things such that those who are poorest, those who are suffering, those who are denied their dignity, will get it all back. How will they get it all back? We'll redistribute wealth, we'll redistribute power. We'll think of new ways to organize the political system, new ways to organize the economy." That's what they're doing. But that's a horror from the point of view of the United States. What happens if they succeed?

The worst possible outcome for U.S. elites is not that Chavez is a dictator. In Washington each day the government gets up praying that he'll do something that, in fact, would be dictatorial. The worst conceivable outcome is that the Venezuelans succeed in improving the quality of life of the people of Venezuela and in creating a model that could be emulated elsewhere. That's why we go in and try to create turmoil and try to create a coup. And who knows what we'll try and do in the future.

And a left president would...?

A left president would say, "My gosh, what's going on in Venezuela is quite fascinating. Let's go down there and try to learn something."

On the economy

SARGENT: We've discussed elections and foreign policy. Let's turn to the economy. Some predict a recession, even a depression. The candidates seem to have nothing new to offer, not surprisingly, although Clinton refers at one point to ending corporate welfare or at least affecting it. As a left candidate how would you approach talking about changing the direction of the economy?

ALBERT: When they say that we have too much corporate welfare, that's true. It doesn't suffice to point out that people are doing less well than they might. It might be more informative to say that there are 40 to 50 million people in the United States living below the poverty line. How can there be that many people below the poverty line in a country as wealthy as the United States? Well, only if you have a very skewed distribution of wealth. So a candidate could say, "Look, the problem with the U.S. economy is that it enriches the few and impoverishes the many. Or it enriches the few and allows the many to get by. That's probably 60-70 percent of the population that worries all the time about such things.

So what does this mean? Well, it means the economy is misoriented. It means the economy is oriented toward profit. It's oriented toward the well being of those who are best off. Candidates could say all that, but they don't. The reason they don't say all that is because to say it in that way would cue investors—the people who finance elections and permit candidates to enact policies—that the candidate in question was not an agent of their interests.

When Huckabee was campaigning and doing fairly well, he referred to Wal-Mart as a genius of the marketplace.

And it is. Wal-Mart is a case study in the genius of the marketplace doing what the marketplace is meant to do, which is to maintain power relations and enrich the powerful. The confusion is that the population hears that as if it's genius at production, it's genius at efficiency, it's genius at using resources in a clever and creative way. But that isn't what it's genius at. In fact, it's impoverished and psychotic at those things. It's really effective at marshaling resources in such a way as to enhance the profit of the few.

How do we see that it's bad at the other? Well, how can it be efficient to have 40 or 50 million people living in poverty? That's not efficient. That is wasting 40-50 million people's capacities. If a capitalist were to say "a portion of my productive potential is lying fallow, that's inefficient," what would they mean? They'd mean "it isn't being utilized to make me profits." But when a large portion of the human population is "lying fallow"— unemployed or underemployed or robbed of its capacities by an educational system that basically deskills and deeducates, the capitalist doesn't say that's inefficient. It's not utilizing the productive capacities of a population, but it is enriching the capitalist. So the capitalist is happy with that.

When candidates say they're interested in change you can test it in some ways. You can see whether they are going to tax profits at 80 or 90 or 100 percent. Are they going to raise inheritance taxes? Are they going to redistribute wealth so that poorer communities get a much bigger slice of the wealth in order to redress the imbalances?

Huckabee also said, "Consumerism is addictive but tranquility is immaterial."

I have no idea what that means, except this: the idea that consumerism is addictive has some merit, in the following sense. The economy is organized so the only road, the only avenue to a modicum of fulfillment for people is consumption. When the advertisements that we see use sex, friendship, and dignity to sell all manner of commodities, it's not a lie. This is a big mistake that many people make. They look at this stuff and they say to themselves, "Oh, stupid people being tricked." Nobody's being tricked. It's true. The economy is so skewed and people's opportunities in life are so restricted that to have friends, a sex life, dignity, and respect requires consumerism.

What's crazy is to have an economy organized in such a fashion so that toothpaste and clothing and types of cars and all manner of items are a prerequisite for fulfillment.

Candidates are always making promises about taxes. How would you talk about taxes?

The idea of taxes is not bad. The idea that there are many things in an economy that are collectively consumed, which must be provided in a collective manner—for example, by a government—is true. Anybody who thinks it isn't should ask themselves what they would be doing if they didn't have clean water, electricity (before it was privatized), roads, and all manner of things that are provided in this way.

It isn't just the military for which you need taxes. The fact that so much goes to the military is horrible. And there's a reason for that. The economic system we live under has to produce at a high level. It needs to keep churning. How do you keep it churning? You have to keep pouring out product. You have to keep spending. One way to do this would be to spend on education, infrastructure, rebuilding cities, parks, health care, and all kinds of things that would improve the quality of people's lives.

Another way to do it—a quite different way—is to spend money on missiles and tanks and all manner of things that don't improve people's lives, but are used to enforce unjust hierarchies. Why is that done? Most people think it's because the army is so important to the powers that be. There's some truth in that. It is important. They do want that apparatus of power. But that's not the sole reason. The second reason is that to spend lots of society's productive output on welfare, unemployment insurance, health care for all, decent housing, etc. would empower people. It would cause people currently living threadbare existences to have more confidence and more comfort. It would put them in a position to demand still more.

What else would be important to talk about during a left campaign?

One thing candidates typically won't talk about is the types of people that exist in the United States, understanding them as classes. Of course, there are many different occupations and many different roles in the economy. One way to think about people in the economy is that there are some who own factories, workplaces, etc.—that's about 2 percent of the population. These people are tremendously wealthy. In some cases, so wealthy that it is almost unfathomable. Bill Gates, for instance—not because of how hard he works or how long or how difficult and dangerous the conditions but because he has a piece of paper in his pocket, a deed to Microsoft that is worth more than the entire economies of many third world countries. So that's one class—the owning class or the capitalist class, the class for which our economy is named.

There's another group that largely monopolizes empowering conditions of work. They have workplace conditions that give them a considerable degree of control over their own lives and the lives of the people "below" them. They're managers, lawyers, doctors, engineers. They have the credentials of authority. They have incomes, typically, many times that of the third class—working people, who do mostly rote and onerous work.

Our economy is skewed in such a way that the capitalist class is by far the richest and most powerful (2 percent). The second class—the coordinator class—comes next (20 percent). It is still rich and powerful compared to workers beneath them (about 80 percent). Candidates won't talk about that because their money and their credibility and what policies they are allowed to pursue are a function of support from the first group. The third group is relatively irrelevant except for tallying votes. So candidates speak to the third group to tally votes, but they take the interests of the first group seriously.

Take education. What do we do regarding education in the United States? We spend most of our money on the rich and powerful—the 2 percent and the 20 percent. Those sectors receive education designed to prepare them to play an engaging role in society, to function with a degree of authority and influence over economic outcomes. The other 80 percent goes to school and essentially learns to take orders and endure boredom in order to occupy the slot of a working person in the U.S.

If a candidate is going to have a program about economics and you're serious about what's going to happen in the U.S. economy as a result of your programs, you have to say two things. You have to say not just that "people need more education," but you also have to tell the reason why they don't get it. And the reason is because in this economy if they were to get it, the 80 percent would come into the economy with too high expectations, too much knowledge, and too much confidence. They would likely then demand more out of life than rote and obedient conditions of work.

What kind of an economy would you be proposing, as a left candidate?

For a left candidate to propose the kind of economy I believe in—a participatory economy—wouldn't make much sense unless you could have a campaign in which the candidate was in a position to talk with the American people for a year about what the features of such a thing would be. Otherwise it would sound crazy because it would be from nowhere. People wouldn't even know what it meant.

What I would talk about is altering the economy in a direction that would lead to more justice, solidarity, equity, and people controlling their own lives. What that means is altering the way markets operate, eventually doing away with them. It would mean altering the way we allocate income, eventually making it equitable. It would mean altering the way we make decisions eventually making it self-management. I would...

By self-management, you mean...?

...I mean people having a say over their lives in proportion to the way they're affected. I would alter the way people interrelate—from competition to cooperation. Those kinds of steps entail a different economy. Our economy has institutions that violate all those values. Our economy systematically causes people to be egocentric and anti-social; to get ahead you must ignore the conditions of other people.

Why are markets so objectionable?

To interact in the marketplace you have to buy cheap and sell dear. In other words you have to rip off the person you are engaging with. For you to do better that person has to do worse. It's anti-social. To function at the head of a corporation you have to abide by the interests of those who own it. That means you have to generate profits. If you don't generate profits, your corporation will go out of business.

Even if you you're inclined to be more humane, you have no choice. The American corporation is an institution in which the disparity in power between the top and the bottom is worse than it is in a political dictatorship. There's no political dictator who even entertained the idea of having a say over when people could go to the bathroom.

As a left candidate couldn't you offer some program changes?

I would offer changes that moved in the right direction. Here's some: let's cut the work week from 40—actually from what's probably 60 to 70 hours a week for 80 percent of the population—to 30 hours a week. What do we do with all that "lost productivity?" First of all, we transfer people from producing useless stuff to producing useful stuff that would benefit people. That goes a long way toward making up a lot of that lost labor.

Imagine it was 50 years ago and people said, "What we need is to shorten the work week, and that includes surgeons and doctors. Therefore, we'd have much less doctoring. Where are we going to get it from?" What if someone suggested we get it from the people who weren't previously doing it. The response would probably be, "That's impossible. Those people are incapable of it." Well, 40 years ago, if you had looked you would have seen there were virtually no women doing surgery. It wasn't because they were genetically incapable of it. History shows that was a lie. It was the social structures that precluded their being surgeons. Well, it's also a lie that working people can't do creative work.

So a serious left candidate would say, "Look, our economy is stifling people's capacities. It is not utilizing the capacities of working people. We could all benefit from more output and less labor time—having more time to live a life."

If you accept the skewing of outcomes for the population—the super- haves, the haves, and the have-nots—it becomes difficult to do much. That's what candidates accept. What they're doing is debating over modest alterations—if you take them at their word, which is already a big stretch—while maintaining that basic situation.